Billy Lynn’s bogus journey

06Dec12

So there’s this book out. It was authored by Ben Fountain, is called Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and has gotten lots of attention. It just may be the long-awaited Great Iraq War Novel. Karl Marlantes, a veteran author I highly respect, has praised it. The book has been compared to Catch-22.

In a nutshell, here’s the plot:

Billy Lynn’s squad gets into a firefight in Iraq. One soldier is killed. Others perform heroic actions and are awarded Silver and Bronze Stars for Valor. A Fox News camera crew is embedded with the squad and puts video of the firefight on the internet. America goes nuts. Billy’s squad is brought back to the US for a “Victory Tour”. Hilarity ensues. The highlight of the Victory Tour is a trip to the Super Bowl. Billy and his soldiers are treated like royalty. However, everyone involved in the tour is just using the soldiers to achieve their own selfish goals. The greed and cruelty of American culture is exposed. Poor Billy and his teenage buddies are manipulated, employed as mere props, used up, tossed aside like trash, and sent back to Iraq.

Keep in mind, I’m trying to be objective about this book. I’ve only read the Barnes and Noble free sample, and checked out several reviews. One of those reviews, which spoke about the novel in glowing terms, was from a reviewer I trust (http://indiscriminatecritic.wordpress.com/2012/10/23/book-review-billy-lynns-long-halftime-walk/). This book was a National Book Award finalist, and has just been nominated for a major award in the UK. I found out about the UK award when I went to Fountain’s scheduled appearance at a Houston bookstore, only to be told he cancelled because he was on his way to London.

I have serious problems with this book. The first is that Fountain isn’t a veteran. Yeah, I know, I’m not being fair. Any good writer can write a good war book if he does his research, right? How dare I expect The Great Iraq War Novel to have been written by an Iraq vet. I mean, it’s not like there are millions of Iraq vets around the country who are qualified to write about the war. Oh wait, yes there are. Well, I guess none of us are writing about it. Oh wait. . . yes we are.

Let’s forget all that. I’ve been assured that Fountain spoke to many veterans to make sure he got the technical aspects, jargon and attitudes correct. Fine. Personally, I think a virgin could study sex, interview thousands of people who have had sex, and still not know what sex is really like. But I’ll forget that too.

Next on the list of my hang-ups about this book is this minor, irritating little fact: the vortex of the story, the “Victory Tour” which exposes the greed, corruption and callousness of Bush, Cheney, Fox News and the American public, could not have happened. Billy Lynn and his soldiers are in the firefight one day, a few days later have already been awarded Silver or Bronze Stars, and suddenly find themselves on a plane back to America (with the body of their friend, no less). This is a ridiculous, nonsensical turn of events.

During my deployments, soldiers who received Army Commendation Awards for Valor, which are lower than a Bronze Star, waited months for the approvals to go through. One incident I know of happened in early August, and medals weren’t awarded until November. Another soldier who received a Bronze Star for the same incident didn’t get it until a year after the battle. U.S. Marine Dakota Meyer and Army Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta didn’t get their Medals of Honor until years after the fact.

In other words, soldiers don’t get awards for valor that quickly. There’s an approval process involved, and the higher the award, the longer the process. But, once again, I’ll forgive Fountain’s fictional transgression. Either he didn’t know this fact (and heaven forbid he ask an actual veteran) or he ignored it for plot purposes. I’m a fiction writer myself, and sometimes I’ve skirted the improbable for a plot’s sake. Not the impossible, but the improbable. Fountain went full impossible.

Next on the list is the Victory Tour itself. Iraq was an “economy of force” war, which means we used as few troops as possible to accomplish missions. Small units covered huge swaths of territory, and platoons that by doctrine were supposed to be in physical contact wound up holding isolated outposts miles from sister units. Guys like me on convoy escort teams had three humvees, with nine guys, to escort twenty or thirty civilian supply trucks through hundreds of miles of hostile territory. Every soldier on my team was in a critical role as gunner, driver or vehicle commander; we just didn’t have anyone to spare. In Fountain’s story, Billy’s squad is sent back to America for propaganda purposes, and the question of “who’s covering their sector?” is never addressed. Neither is that fact that our troops haven’t been pulled out mid-deployment for victory tours since maybe World War II.

I’ll forget that too. The fact that a situation probably couldn’t happen is no reason to exclude it from a novel. You can’t make a fictional omelet without breaking the eggs of reality.

Now I get to an obstacle that I just can’t overcome. As I’ve said, I’ve only read part of Fountain’s story. I refuse to buy the book. That’s because I’m hesitant to give money to someone who I think may be insulting our troops.

“Whoa”, you might say. “Why do you think Fountain insulted the troops? He’s actually standing up for the troops, trying to protect them from being used for political purposes. What’s wrong with that?”

Fair question. Here’s my answer. I think it’s insulting because, based on the little bit of the book I’ve read and the reviews I’ve seen, Billy Lynn and his fellow soldiers are portrayed as nothing more than child victims. They’re too young to understand the war, they don’t get the fact that they’re being used by the evil Bush administration to drum up political support, they don’t realize that people don’t actually care about them. They’re just too dumb to know what’s happening.

Lines like these, about one of the soldiers, have been highlighted by a reviewer: “He grew up in a ditch, he don’t know from being cold!” “It’s like giving a pig a Rolex, ma’am, he’s got no appreciation for the finer things in life.” According to the same review, this line is in the book: “Maybe this low-grade band of brothers isn’t ‘the greatest generation’, but they are surely the best of the bottom third percentile of their own somewhat muddled and suspect generation.”

Until I read this, I wasn’t aware I was part of the bottom third of anything. I have to wonder, was this characterization supposed to apply to all of us? I served with many highly intelligent, well-educated soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. The vast majority of those guys either had successful careers and families back home, or were waiting to complete their military service before starting families and beginning careers. They weren’t losers in the mythical “bottom third percentile”.

Come to think of it, is there some reason Fountain chose the name “Billy Lynn” for his protagonist? Does that name evoke a down-home redneckishness that Fountain thinks epitomizes all our soldiers? I’d bet the answer is yes.

My impression might be wrong. Maybe Fountain doesn’t think our troops are too stupid to know better. However, I’ve seen this kind of thinking so often I’m not surprised by it, and have come to expect it from highly-educated people. When my cynicism is flowing freely, I suspect much of their “support” for troops is actually pity. Pity for us poor, young, uneducated, mostly minority children who were tricked into joining the military because we had no other options.

I’ve heard a woman with a PhD speak of the “poverty draft”, which was the military’s alleged targeting of poor teenagers (according to her, “There are no recruiting stations in Beverly Hills”). People like her, who like Fountain were never in the military, seem to think they understand those of us who made the conscious decision to serve in the military during wartime. Gee, thank God they’re here to save us from our own decisions.

To Fountain’s credit, he acknowledged his lack of credentials during a November 13th New York Times interview: “Since I’ve never served in the military, never been in a shooting war, I felt like I had to earn the right to write a book like this. I’m still not satisfied that I had the right to do it.” He also said, after talking about receiving praise from vets, “. . . I don’t doubt that there are plenty of current and former soldiers who’ve read a couple of pages and chucked it aside in disgust or boredom. But I don’t hear from them, or at least I haven’t yet.”

Well, he’s hearing from me now. I’ll address the remainder of this post directly to Mr. Fountain, in the probably vain hope that he’ll actually read it and care what a combat vet has to say.

Mr. Fountain, I assure you that even though you never served, you have the right to write war novels. Likewise, even though I’m not a college guy, I have the right to write a book about what being in a fraternity is really like. In this country, anyone can write any stupid book about anything. The First Amendment, rather than anything we’ve done, guarantees it.

In the NYT interview, you mentioned that Leo Tolstoy wasn’t even alive during the Napoleonic era, yet still wrote War and Peace. You used this to prove your lack of military background doesn’t mean you can’t write a good war novel. However, Tolstoy had two huge advantages over you. First, he was an actual war veteran, having served in the Crimean War. Second, and more importantly, the soldiers he wrote about were dead. When his book was published, few if any veterans of the war he wrote about were alive to point out what was real and what was absolute crap. In a hundred years, someone can write a World War II novel about a lesbian who leads the invasion of Normandy from her wheelchair, and no WW2 vets will be around to figuratively stab the author in the face for it. Unfortunately for you, there are still plenty of Iraq vets around who may take exception to your depiction of who we are.

But what really pisses me off, or potentially pisses me off, is that you think you have the authority to tell anyone what the war/soldiers/homecoming/whatever is really like. If your book was comedy or something inconsequential, I wouldn’t be bothered. But from what I gather, you wrote this book to make a statement, to tell some alleged truth about our soldiers, our war, and our country. My gut reaction is that nobody who hasn’t been there can tell the truth about any war. You don’t have to be a soldier in a war to see this truth, but you have to at least visit. I don’t like what Ashley Gilbertson had to say about the Iraq war and our military, but at least his opinions came from firsthand experience.

My last word to you will be partly an apology. I haven’t read your book, so my suspicions and criticism may be completely off. I will read the book if someone gives it to me for free, or if I find it at my library. I’m willing to forgive if you’ll just acknowledge that central tenets of your plot, the light-speed awards and Victory Tour, could not have happened. I’ll praise your writing ability, and admit that I envy your talent. If I read the book and discover that you’ve done us justice, I’ll post an apology on my blog.

However, if I do read the book, this is what I expect to find: it was written by someone who knows nothing of the war, for people who know nothing of the war. I expect it to pander to an audience that openly despises the previous presidential administration and quietly despises our military. I suspect your novel has much in common with the ridiculous movie The Hurt Locker, which received fawning praise from nonveterans and was laughed at by those who had been in Iraq. I think your book will make Billy and his friends look like morons, rather than adult men who freely decided to serve their country in combat. I think you’ve done nothing more than offer us pity disguised as support. I think you’ve committed the same offense you accuse others of; the characters in your novel use Billy’s squad for political purposes, while you, by the same token, use us soldiers as devices to further your own career.

Not that I expect my feelings to matter to you; I’m sure that whatever complaints soldiers have about your book, you’ll happily walk across our backs to the bank and awards stage.

If your book shows that most of us live by the mantra, “My country was at war; I joined the military; I knew what I was doing,” then I congratulate you for your success. But I think you’ve portrayed us as something other than volunteers who willingly chose wartime service and all the pain, anger, and frustration it entails. If that’s the case, if you’ve shown us pity disguised as support, then you can kiss my “bottom third percentile”, proud Iraq veteran ass.



14 Responses to “Billy Lynn’s bogus journey”

  1. This review may not be far off base. In “Flag of Our Fathers” by James Bradley, and in Clint Eastwood’s movie of the same name, the characters are depicted as clearly suffering from PTSD while being exploited by the US government to sell more war bonds. In the good old USA, exploitation of real and imagined war heroes is a tried and true tradition where heroes may find themselves at the mercy of the very capitalist system they sacrificed for.

    • David,

      There’s no question it happened during WW2. However, I’m unaware of troops ever being pulled from the current wars for publicity/propaganda tours. You’re correct with your example, but my point was that it hasn’t happened with the Iraq war. I feel that Fountain manufactured an impossible event (impossible because of the awards aspect), then used it to make a satirical statement about the war, the country and the military. To me, that’s dishonest.

      Chris

  2. Just ran across this Billy Lynn book review on Goodreads.com:

    “Well, I couldn’t have said it better…for years I have worked with wonderful students for whom the current educational system did not work. Most were not from bad families, but for whatever reason, diverged from the “norm” and were not successful in our schools. Their familes could be ‘proud’ of them for becoming military. So often I think of a Billy who is grist for the war mill, but could have truly been something in life if expectations in our public schools were different, or families were different. The brilliant juxtapositon of war and football made this work so in your face…I was married to a college football coach and saw this sort of thing first hand. Should be a novel in our high school curriculums.”

    This is the disgusting, arrogant, condescending attitude I see in Fountain’s book. Our poor soldiers “could have been something”, but chose the military instead. Their families can be proud of them because they finally didn’t fail at something. It’s not possible that they chose the military because they believed in it.

    I don’t think there’s a better illustration of the type of reader this book was written for.

  3. And now I see a review that says Billy Lynn joined the Army to avoid a prison sentence. Another negative stereotype of our troops. This just keeps getting better.

  4. Reader Kathryn tried to post a comment, but a technical glitch blocked it. Below is her comment and my response:

    Kathryn Dec 7, 9:24 am

    wow! Just wow! I am sorry, but I truly think anyone that has never been in the military and war, has no business writing about it. It always reminds me a “Stolen Valor”

    Kathryn,

    sorry for the delayed response, for some reason wordpress wouldn’t let me approve your comment. I don’t have a problem with a nonveteran writing about war, because some have written great books about war despite having no personal experience. Black Hawk Down and The Red Badge of Courage are good examples. I just have a problem with people who haven’t been in the military writing novels that supposedly tell some deep truth about a war or soldiers. Fortunately there’s no Stolen Valor involved here.

    Chris

  5. 6 nswebster

    This is certainly a pretty well-formed argument, and I get your concern about the book.

    Having read – and really liked – the book, I will say that I think you’re very, very, very mistaken about how the soldiers come across.

    Speaking as an Iraq vet myself (from 1991), and an embedded journalist of several trips, the way the men act and talk comes across accurately and with full respect.

    They aren’t a bunch of poor knuckleheads – but they are smart enough to know that is how they being perceived by their (fictional) audience, and it annoys them. So, in the narrative, they play up to that stereotype because it’s what’s expected of them.

    The book is absolutely an indictment of the average American who doesn’t know anything, and who says “thanks for your service!” without knowing anything else about it – but the soldiers come across very well.

    The book has flaws. There are contrived scenes with a cheerleader, and some Hollywood script stuff that seems a little unreal, and the ending’s kind of dumb – but overall I think it was really well done.

    It’s worth reading to see how much, or how little, this preconcived opinion of yours actually is. I think you should give it a chance, and you might be surprised – or not, who knows!

    Good argument, though. It’s always fun to read a well-written takedown.

    • Mr. Webster,

      Thank you for your comments. Your review of BL was actually the first one I read, and did give me reason to pause before I posted my pseudo-review of the book. Having said that, I haven’t seen many positive comments about this book from veterans, which makes your review surprising. Fountain has mentioned positive comments from vets, but the vast majority of positive reviews I’ve seen are from people who appear to have no military background (one of them talked about the “Army squad of Marines”). The review I posted in a comment above really tore me up; this book seems to really resonate with people who think we soldiers joined because we’re losers with no other options.

      If the reviews are to be believed, Fountain wrote many Vietnam stereotypes into the soldiers. If it’s true that Billy Lynn joined the Army to avoid prison, I run into a dead end right there. The military doesn’t take convicted felons anymore, nor does it allow people to join in lieu of incarceration. This isn’t the 60’s. Our troops aren’t all teenagers. I have to ask, where in “Bravo squad” are the older, experienced and mature NCOs who are present in every unit I’ve ever seen?

      Furthermore, if the troops are annoyed by the way the public expects them to act, why do they play along by acting that way?

      When I do read the book, and I will, I will do my best to be openminded about it. Unfortunately, even if the soldiers aren’t portrayed as idiots, I’ll still have serious issues with this book. The factual inaccuracies which you acknowledged in your review are enough to cast a pall over the entire story; if the awards couldn’t have come that quick, and the soldiers wouldn’t have been pulled out of theater for a victory tour, the book sure does lose a lot of punch. Especially if the bottom line comes down to this:

      1) This fictional incident could never have happened;
      2) Look how this fictional incident exposes everything that’s wrong with America!

      Aside from that, it’s not exactly a news flash that there are jingoistic expressions of patriotism in America. Blind patriotism has been present in every country, and every war, forever amen. To only highlight the mindless expressions of support is a slight to the very real supporters of our troops. It’s not wrong to criticize the mindless support, of course, but it isn’t honest to show only that type.

      Again, I appreciate your comments, and I will do my best to give this book a chance. Thank you and I look forward to interacting with you in the future.

      Chris

      • 8 Lauren

        Actually, it is possible for Billy Lynn to have joined up to avoid jail. One female in my BCT platoon did exactly that in 2007. She was arrested on some kind of possession charge. Someone said she could get out of it by joining the military, so she got in contact with a recruiter. She told the judge she was joining the military to turn her life around, but couldn’t do it if she had a conviction. Not actually sure what happened to the charges, but she didn’t serve any time and she made it into the army. It’s different than the old stories of a judge saying, ‘army or jail’ but not by a lot. She didn’t want to go to jail so she found a way out of it — the army. Sadly, the jail got the better deal in that transaction.

        It’s also possible to join with a felony. Before I went to BCT, I was in a weekend training program for the ARNG called RSP. Our trainer there was an infantryman who’d served in Iraq. He literally met his recruiter as he was being released from jail for assaulting a police officer. How do I know it’s true? He read us his arrest report right before reading his ARCOM citation.

        There’s also this story in the NYTimes: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/06/nyregion/06soldier.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

        Basically, SGT Osvaldo Hernandez had a felony gun conviction from 2002 but was allowed to join the army a year later. It made the news because he’s now fighting to join the NYPD but can’t because of his conviction.

        I’m not defending the book as a whole, but you do seem to believe technical accuracy is very important. It’s true that the army’s policy is not to take convicted felons, but like almost all army policies there is a way to make an exception for the benefit of the army. In both of the cases I’m aware of, it turned out to be a good decision.

        • Lauren,

          It’s true that many things are waiverable, but the old style “go to jail or join the Army” doesn’t happen anymore. In the female soldier’s case that you described, she wasn’t given a choice; she went to a recruiter specifically to get the judge to dismiss charges. A judge granting leniency because someone is joining the military, or the military waiving criminal history, isn’t the same as giving someone a choice between jail and the military.

          As I recall, Billy Lynn did get the “jail or Army” choice. Maybe I’m recalling that wrong, but I don’t remember it being a matter of having charges dropped if he joined the military, or of him getting a waiver. If I’m wrong, I’m happy to admit that.

          Thanks for bringing this up. I don’t have the book anymore, I’d appreciate if you check that out for me.

  6. 10 nswebster

    Well, remember it is fiction, so there needs to be some suspension of disbelief here.

    I agree that the medals would not have been awarded that quickly (among other things), but you know – they COULD have been. It’s not totally impossible.

    There will be other parts you will surely have problems with, and you might not like it for a variety of reasons – just go in with an open mind.

  7. 13 JimP

    Science Fiction is possible when the Author uses “Science” to get around some impossible obstacle to the story, like the laws of physics……

    What does that make this? “Ignorance Fiction”? “Political Bias Fiction”?

    As for the “Bottom Third Percentile” BS …… I wonder how many of those turds parrotting that nonsense would wash out of boot camp?

    • Political bias fiction is a good term for it. One very telling detail I left out of the review: Billy Lynn sees a civilian carrying a concealed weapon and gets furious about it. Who does that guy think he is, carrying a gun around? If he wants to carry a gun he should join the Army and go to Iraq! Of course, that ignores the fact that the vast majority of soldiers and veterans are very pro-2A and pro-concealed carry, but it just happens to fall in line with what most nonveteran liberals like Ben Fountain believe. Go figure.


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